Q: My kid is incredibly reluctant to try anything new, whether it be food, a game or new activity. This does not bode well for when he starts elementary school this fall. Any tips for how to get him interested and OK with new things?
Yours is a tricky question to answer with only the information you have shared. Each child is a different person with different characteristics, traits, temperament and personality. And each child is also a product of the environment and circumstances in which s/he is being raised. So, every tip I offer will not necessarily be effective for every child. And each will need to be adapted to the particular child.
I can tell you that children who are “neophobes,” who have an unwillingness to try or do new things (neophobia), are born that way. It was part of the factory equipped model of child you got! While over-parenting, coddling and the like can influence a child’s willingness to take risks, it is usually built on a genetic predisposition of such traits. It is part of the child’s innate temperament.
As I have previously explained in this column, your temperament is the HOW of who you are. It includes characteristics like flexibility, productivity, sensitivity, adaptability, to name a few. When temperament meets environment, you get personality. Temperament is part of one’s genetic makeup. So, your child’s reluctance to try new things may come right from Grandpa Harry!
Much research is currently being done about helping children with this kind of anxiety, looking at the neuroscience of anxiety. What we do know is that worried children have trouble adjusting to things that are new, including school, making friends and yes, even tasting new foods. Many of these children suffer from a fear of failure and from not wanting to make errors. The findings are quite hopeful, as these researchers look at ways to help the children themselves to take charge of their feelings.
While the first anything may be a challenge, I am guessing that once your child takes a step, you have seen that the second time is easier, as his confidence grows. So will it be with school.
The first three and most important tips I want to offer as your child gets ready for elementary school are for you:
Be patient. Just like your child became comfortable in preschool, so will it happen in kindergarten.
Acknowledge and validate his feelings. Instead of telling him not to worry or saying “there is nothing to worry about,” let him know you get it. Say something like, “We know you! We know it takes you time to get comfortable with new things. Right now you are wondering what school will be like. You have lots of things you don’t know, and that makes you worry.” Allow him his feelings.
Do not let your own anxiety about your son starting kindergarten leak. Of course you are apprehensive about how it will be for him. Just know that your child will pick up on your feelings, which will only add to his own.
You are a mirror to your child. He looks to you to know he is okay even when he has butterflies in his stomach. But I do not believe in pushing. I believe in being supportive and being the encouragement and positive attitude he needs.
Please know that almost all children are apprehensive about starting school, whether it is kindergarten for the first time or a new class with a new teacher or just new friends in older grades.
I am a big proponent of pointing out to kids their great traits (even if they are not fully developed yet!). Every time your son tries something new, every time he takes a risk between now and the start of school, point out to him that he did it. “Wow! Even though you had butterflies in your tummy, you climbed half way up that new slide. You really did it.” “You really didn’t want to go to the new park, but you went and had a great time. You did it. You are someone who is learning to do new and sometimes hard things.” He will begin to see himself as someone who can, as opposed to someone who can’t or won’t.
Specifically, in relation to starting school, I would NOT talk about it much. I certainly would drive by school often and wave “Hi school!” Beyond that, let it be.
When you are a week or so out, perhaps give the following tips a try:
Read any of the many books about starting school for the first time ( … or not, if you feel that creates more anxiety).
Have one-on-one, low-key get togethers (including parent) with peers who might be in his class. Go to the park or get ice cream together.
Talk to an older friend who went to kindergarten last year. Perhaps he has an old preschool or family friend who can share what it was like. What did he do on his first days in kindergarten? Ask him if he had butterflies. Ask him to talk about the activities he enjoyed.
As the start of school gets closer and the butterfly wings flutter wildly in his tummy, make a list with him of the things that are on his mind, that he is wondering about. I suggest to some clients that they make a video of the child saying the things he is doesn’t know. Then after the second or third day of school, Mom plays back the video and lets the child answer all his own questions.
Look at old photos starting with his baby book, and look at photos of things he mastered. “This was before you could walk. Boy, were you brave getting up on your tiny feet the first time. Look at you now! Walking is a cinch and you are such a good runner!” Remember together when he started preschool or learned to swim. So many risks and so many successes.
I wish I could give you tips for making your child interested in starting kindergarten. The reality is that all children are naturally curious and interested in all kinds of things … pretty much everything! This trait takes off by itself. But his fluttering butterfly wings just might temporarily drown out that interest. Being “interested in starting school” is likely there already.
That said, in the coming weeks, when your son asks a substantive question, “Mommy, how come the sky is blue?” you can answer, “I think that is something you’re going to learn in kindergarten.” Or “That will be a great question for your teacher!” You whet his whistle for all the interesting things he will do and learn in kindergarten.
And remember that all growth and development are built on scaffolding. Each year the start of school will be less daunting for your child … and for you.
BBB is a child development and behavior specialist in Pacific Palisades. She can be reached through betsybrownbraun.com.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.